30 Oct Rage
Our film about Dr. Sarno is called “All The Rage” because, according the doctor, the repression of rage is a primary driver of many pain issues. From Dr. Sarno’s perspective, the pain acts as a distraction or defense against feeling or experiencing “unacceptable emotions.” Many people reject the idea that our emotions could cause our pain, but the science and the philosophy are starting to make a connection.
Imagine growing up in a household with a parent who flies off the handle if things don’t go well. Even if there were no hitting – or even extreme expressions of rage – as a young child the energy of even stifled rage can be terrifying. In this scenario, both the rage and the behavior that inspired that rage might be something the child learns to avoid. When we touch a hot stove, we learn not to touch it again. If our crying instigates a swift rebuke, we learn to stifle the crying. In fact, we often learn to do everything we can to keep that rage at bay. We might also learn to be terrified of even expressing anger ourselves. If it is playing or laughing too loudly that earns the child a harsh rebuke, that child might learn not to laugh – or cry- or express the emotions they feel- because to do so is dangerous. When these lessons are taught early enough – perhaps before we have words to understand them – even if a few weeks or months have passed, the child no longer remembers why the behavior is dangerous, simply that it is and the brain develops ways to keep it from happening.
Our amygdala is designed to keep us safe from threats. It does not distinguish between emotional and physical threats, and therefore responds physically to emotional threats. The problem is that if our body learns to respond physically to emotional threats before our thinking/rational brain is fully formed, then those responses become coded into our actions and feel like they are “who we are”. They feel intractable and real. When we react physically to anger or pressure, it feels like it is a natural reaction that we simply have to accept, that we have to learn to live with. However, there are ways of retraining our brains. First though, we have to have a strong sense of what is going on.
Our infant or reptilian brain responds to danger by priming the body for fight or flight. If we feel safe and cared for, the infant brain learns to communicate with the developing frontal cortex, or thinking brain. However, if we are faced with emotional dangers before we know how to think through them, and also when we are faced with overwhelming threats later in life and can think through them (i.e. war time PTSD), then our body learns to respond to the emotions by putting us in a fight or flight posture even when there is no physical threat. This means that the amygdala floods the body with stress hormones that help us to flee, fight, or freeze in place to avoid being noticed (like a deer).
Even when we are handicapped by these physical responses to emotional threats, we often develop coping mechanisms. We might avoid situations that stress us out, or classes that overwhelm us, or find ways to distract ourselves from the feelings. However, these coping mechanisms can often fail us if the stress simply becomes too great, or we are faced with a situation that drives our fear response that we feel we can’t escape from. This could be a relationship, a job, pressure we put on ourselves to succeed, etc.
In any of these scenarios, you might imagine your stress as if it were water in a tea pot. When we feel angry about something and it feels unsafe to express that anger (even if we are unaware of what is going on), it’s like turning on the heat under the kettle. The pressure builds up, and we might find ourselves losing control of that anger and it escapes through the whistle as rage- for example we might surprise ourselves by yelling at a co-worker, a child, or a partner. We might apologize and go back to repressing those feelings once we’ve calmed down – but that won’t solve the problem. When we recognize that this rage is unacceptable, we put a little tape over the whistle and a crack might form in the kettle, that crack might manifest itself as back pain, or migraines, or an ulcer. In other words, the pressure is gonna go somewhere. That toxic mix of adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones are going to settle in your body if you produce more than you can process.
According to Hilary Jacobs Hendel’s book “It’s Not Always Depression”, we have 7 core emotions: fear, anger, grief, joy, excitement, disgust, and sexual excitement. Early in life we learn from our care givers, often unconsciously, how unacceptable these 7 emotions are. We then develop defenses to protect ourselves from inadvertently revealing or feeling these unacceptable emotions. These defenses are our inhibitory emotions and they include anxiety, shame, and guilt. We also develop defenses to keep us us from having to confront or even feel these unacceptable emotions. Here’s an example she gives on her web page.
“Today I am anxious about writing a blog. I feel fluttering in my chest and my stomach is all bubbly-feeling. Because I don’t like feeling my anxiety, I’m avoiding it by having negative thoughts like “maybe I can’t do this” and I’m obsessing about an unrelated phone call I have to make. (This initial move from emotions to defense largely happens unconsciously and automatically.)”
Oftentimes the emotion that we are conscious of – things like shame, anxiety, or guilt – is actually the emotion that we are using to shield ourselves from unacceptable core emotions. For example, we might feel guilt because we don’t feel worthy or good enough about ourselves. We might feel anxiety to distract us from our self-hatred or our rage. Once we begin to recognize the connections between these emotions and we allow ourselves to feel things that we find so difficult to feel, we can dial down the fear, as well as the fight or flight response. We can learn to respond to our feelings rather than react to them. It’s not an easy process, but it is certainly a worthy pursuit.
I actually started to write this post because I was thinking about how rage often makes us irrational, and unable to engage our thinking brain. Having spent the past few years documenting protest, I have seen the level of division and the amount of rage expand significantly. The other day I wrote this post about how tribal the political situation has become recently as I have tried to shoot at these events. I have been documenting protests surrounding Confederate statues in North Carolina. As I am not a journalist nor acting as an activist, I am not on a team. I therefore face a lot of scrutiny from the protesters even though I pretty much whole-heartedly understand and support their work. However, I also know that if my work is done in support of their work, it will lose its ability to reach people who don’t already agree with them. The problem is that since the work is fairly neutral, the people who support the monument see it as supporting their cause just as those who rally against it see it as supporting theirs. The post above was about how some of the activists who are fighting the statue ran me off from an event the other day because they didn’t know who I was.
As I sat down to write this piece, I was confronted with another example of extreme and seemingly irrational rage. I checked the news to find that there was an active shooter in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. We now know he killed 11 people and it has been reported that he did so because he believed that Jews were funding the caravan that is headed to the US from Honduras with people seeking asylum. This reality left me so confused that I had to stop typing, and found myself unable to fully focus two days later. Here’s a post that I wrote for Facebook. It’s connected because it’s also about how these traumas carry down through generations – through our genes and through learned behaviors. I was thinking a lot about how generational trauma related to being Jewish affected my father on a deep level and how I unconsciously carry some of that pain. My reaction, or lack thereof, to the events in Pittsburgh led to the following words:
If you can’t tell by last name or my noble nose, I’m Jewish. I did not grow up practicing the religion- but we did have the big book of Jewish Humor on the coffee table and we were well aware of and appreciated the culture. My father had no interest in the rituals of religion. In some sense, I think he was very spiritual, but he wouldn’t have fully admitted it if you asked him – he had something of an aversion to faith. I picked up some of that cynicism but somehow ended up as a religious studies major because I just happened to take all the classes I needed for it- because I was curious.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently – this aversion to anything spiritual or religious – partly in relation to our film All the Rage. I started to look into our history a bit more. When I looked up my father’s family on ancestry.com, I found that his mother and father came separately from Lithuania in 1908, and a quick google search reveals that this coincided with a flurry of pogrom activity that had been quietly stirring for 30 years. Then when he was a young boy growing up in New Haven, the Nazis marched into Vilnius and let the Lithuanian’s know it was a good time for them to kill their Jewish neighbors and take their property.
Starting on June 25, Nazi-organized units attacked Jewish civilians in Slobodka (Vilijampolė), the Jewish suburb of Kaunas that hosted the world-famous Slabodka yeshiva. According to Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, there were Germans present on the bridge to Slobodka, but it was the Lithuanian volunteers who killed the Jews. The rabbi of Slobodka, Rav Zalman Osovsky, was tied hand and foot to a chair, “then his head was laid upon an open volume of gemora (volume of the Talmud) and [they] sawed his head off”, after which they murdered his wife and son. His head was placed in a window of the residence, bearing a sign: “This is what we’ll do to all the Jews.”
As of June 28, 1941, according to Stahlecker, 3,800 people had been killed in Kaunas and a further 1,200 in other towns in the immediate region. Some believe Stahlecker exaggerated his murder tally.
and on Vilnius-
The Vilna Ghetto was a World War II Jewish ghetto established and operated by Nazi Germany in the city of Vilnius in the territory of Nazi-administered Reichskommissariat Ostland. During the some two years of its existence, starvation, disease, street executions, maltreatment, and deportations to concentration camps and extermination camps reduced the Ghetto’s population from an estimated 40,000 to zero. Only several hundred people managed to survive, mostly by hiding in the forests surrounding the city, joining Soviet partisans, or sheltering with sympathetic locals.
I read somewhere that of the 320,000 Jews in the the Vilnius area before the war, there were less than 3,000 after- and this was not a case of refugees escaping- it was almost entirely Jews dying… Have you heard about this? and it wasn’t the Nazis- they just made it easy, possible, and profitable.
I had not heard about any of this. I can imagine, however, that this information filtered back to the communities in America, and the trauma would have been enormous and long lasting- and that my father took this trauma into his body and his soul, and that trauma is passed down. In this case as avoidance or disassociation.
I’m not sure exactly what I am saying here. I’m not really making an argument, but instead an observation. The situation in Pittsburgh is very upsetting to me, but I also feel somewhat disassociated from it. An assault on one Jew is an assault on all Jews- yet I don’t know that I feel assaulted enough – assaulted enough to know what action to take. I believe that this sense of dislocation is a product of learning how to respond from my father, who was clearly traumatized by these events in ways that he did not know or understand, yet passed on to me – as has been experienced by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of others.
The good news is that gaining some insight into this gives me a pathway towards feeling it to heal it. I will get to work.
update*** they synagogue shooting left me thinking a lot more about my own heritage and I wrote another post the following day that can be found here.